Newsday: U.S. dominance appears to be fading

By Art Spander

Special to Newsday

LOS ANGELES -- Each time an American team fails to win in international
competition, as in the Ryder Cup before 2008 and the World Baseball
Classic, which concluded last night, there are periods of bewilderment
and even anger.

It is as if the United States collectively has failed, as if dropping a
ballgame or not being able to drop a putt is a reflection of society
rather than a sporting event.

There's no rule that says America is guaranteed a win, not when in this
ever-changing world, other nations are producing athletes good enough
to play in the United States as well as against the United States.

The NBA has Latvians, Croats, Brazilians and, of course, Chinese, dare
anyone forget Yao Ming. An Australian, Trevor Immelman, won the
Masters. An Irishman, Padraig Harrington, won the British Open and PGA
Championship. And as we learned Sunday night in the WBC semifinals,
Japan -- which defeated the U.S., 9-4 -- has a roster of excellent
athletes, some of whom are in the big leagues.

Anyone familiar with Ichiro Suzuki or Daisuke Matsuzaka shouldn't be surprised by the Japanese.

It's been said pitching and defense wins. Japan -- which fefeated South
Korea Monday night for the WBC title; the two finalists split four
previous 2009 WBC games -- had an ERA of 1.57 after the semifinals. The
U.S. had an ERA above 6.

The Asian teams, which began training in January, admittedly might be
ahead of the United States. And the United States had injuries to Kevin
Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, Chipper Jones and Matt Lindstrom.

Manager Davey Johnson, who led the Mets to the 1986 world championship
and the United States to a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics, took flak
Monday for leaving starting pitcher Roy Oswalt in the semifinal game
too long.

"I thought he was throwing the ball all right,'' Johnson said of
Oswalt, who gave up five runs and five hits in the fourth. "I tried to
get [John] Grabow up. I didn't think it would take him so long.''

He added, "It took him longer in the cool weather to get loose. But I
thought Oswalt was throwing good enough to stay in the game.''

Said Brian Roberts, who homered on Matsuzaka's second pitch of the
game: "Baseball may be the national pastime of the United States, but
it is played all around the world. And as you can see, it's played very
well all over the world.''

Said Jimmy Rollins, who was 4-for-4 in the loss: "We had a lot of fun
being an underdog, knowing that we were at somewhat of a disadvantage
as far as having time to prepare. It shows the support and passion
these other countries have for baseball. In America, we have many
sports, so our attention is at whichever sport season is going on."

Mark DeRosa's two-run double in the top of the eighth got the United
States within 6-4, but Japan scored three runs in the bottom of the
inning on Derek Jeter's two-out throwing error, Suzuki's RBI single and
Hiroyuki Nakajima's RBI double that rightfielder Adam Dunn appeared to
lose in the lights.

Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda took it pretty hard. He said
during Sunday night's game: "Can you believe this? Look at the score. I
feel so bad about this. I'm very, very disappointed. We had high hopes.
This is the second time we were supposed to win. We taught these people
the game."

And now the students are schooling the teachers.

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Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.

Newsday: Team USA loses to Japan, 9-4, in WBC semifinals

By Art Spander

Special to Newsday

LOS ANGELES -- It was just one ballgame, and it didn't prove that Asian
baseball is better than American baseball. That was the observation of
United States manager Davey Johnson.

Just one ballgame, but it was one that put Japan into the World
Baseball Classic final against South Korea and left America wondering
about the sport it calls its national pastime.

Defending champion Japan, hitting balls in the gaps and getting its
usual effective pitching, defeated the United States, 9-4, last night
before a chilled but enthusiastic crowd of 43,630 in their WBC
semifinal at Dodger Stadium.

So tonight it will be South Korea, a 10-2 winner over deflated
Venezuela on Saturday night, against Japan in the final. And the
response should be huge, with Los Angeles being home to large Korean
and Japanese communities among its 3.2 million citizens.

"It was just one game,'' said Johnson, who managed the Mets to the 1986
world championship and years ago played in Japan. He was responding to
a question about whether Asian baseball has surpassed baseball in the
United States.

"They played good ball,'' Johnson said of the Japanese. "They got hits
with runners in scoring position. We didn't pitch when we had to.''

The Astros' Roy Oswalt was Team USA's starter, and whether it was the
cold -- it seemed more like a World Series game in Philadelphia than a
spring game in L.A. -- or because he still isn't ready for the
major-league season, he got pounded in the fourth, giving up five runs
and five hits.

Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka -- "Dice-K'' of the Red Sox -- basically was
in control after giving up a home run to Brian Roberts on the game's
second pitch. As were the other Japan pitchers in this competition.
They entered with a 1.20 ERA, compared to the Americans' 6.18.

"When we walked the first hitter,'' Johnson said, "those guys usually
scored. And we weren't as sharp in the field as we usually are.''

"They are a fundamentally sound team,'' Team USA designated hitter
Jimmy Rollins said. "They don't try to drive every pitch out of the
park. And they play with passion. We play with passion, but they wear
their passion on their sleeves.''

The U.S. beat Japan for the bronze medal in the Beijing Olympics, but
once this game got to the fourth inning, it became obvious that the
Americans were in trouble.

"We did want to come here and play Japan,'' Johnson said before the
first pitch. "That's one of the goals we had. I think every player on
this team expects to win tonight.''

But expectations and results are two different things.

The Americans, wearing gray road uniforms, started quickly enough on Roberts' homer.

With darkness still far off -- the game began at 5:09 p.m. PDT -- and
the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance as a perfect backdrop for a
California setting, a Hollywood-type ending seemed imminent. Especially
after the Mets' David Wright doubled in the third to give the U.S. a
2-1 lead.

But Japan's batters lined a couple of balls into open spaces to begin
the fourth off Oswalt, to be followed by an error from Roberts on a
hard shot by Kosuke Fukudome. The Mariners' Kenji Johjima recorded his
second sacrifice fly, and Japan was in front.

Akinori Iwamura, a star for Tampa Bay in the World Series, tripled.
Finally, after a couple more hits, Johnson replaced Oswalt with John
Grabow. It seemed certain that the U.S. would not replace Japan as

Matsuzaka allowed two runs and five hits in 42/3 innings and was pulled
when he reached 98 pitches. Matsuzaka is 3-0 in this year's WBC, having
allowed 14 hits and four runs in 142/3 innings. He went 3-0 and was
selected tournament MVP three years ago.

Team USA, of course, was without Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Kevin
Youkilis, both injured along the way. They didn't get to face Red Sox
teammate Matsuzaka. "Before Pedroia left,'' Johnson said of last year's
American League Most Valuable Player, "he said one thing he wanted to
do was play the Japanese and beat them so he didn't have to listen to
Dice-K all year long.''

No such luck. Matsuzaka struck out four, including the final batter he
faced, Wright, who was mesmerized by a sharp breaking ball.

The Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Mets' Wright each went 1-for-5 and
committed an error in the semifinal. Wright finished at 9-for-32 (.281)
and Jeter was 8-for-29 (.276).

Johnson, 66, played in Japan, for the Yomiuri Giants and was asked his
opinion of Asian baseball now as compared to when he was involved.

"In the '70s,'' Johnson said, "I thought quite a few players would come
to the United States. I was kind of surprised they didn't. But now
their stars come over and become stars in the United States in the big

"So I think their baseball program has grown. Their catchers are
better. The running game is not as prominent. But they'll try to run
and play little ball.''

Japan has 77 hits in the Classic, 61 of which have been singles, and only four home runs.

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Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.

Newsday: U.S. faces familiar face in Japan's Dice-K

Special to Newsday

LOS ANGELES -- The argument is that the World Baseball Classic doesn't count for much,
at least in America, the country where baseball was invented. That like
the Olympics, it's an event for the rest of the globe, for Latin
America, for Asia.

But what makes sport is personalties, names, reputations. What makes
tonight's WBC semifinal fascinating is that instead of Japan against
the United States at Dodger Stadium, it could be Boston against New

Japan is starting Red Sox righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka. And, of
course, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Mets third baseman David
Wright are in the Team USA lineup.

(Oddly, Dice-K would have been facing Red Sox teammates Dustin Pedroia
and Kevin Youkilis if they hadn't gotten hurt earlier in the WBC.)

"We face him all the time," Jeter said of Dice-K, who joined the Red
Sox in 2007. "Playing Boston 20 games a year, we see him all the time,
so I'm familiar with what he throws. I think at this point in the
season, pitching is usually a little ahead of the hitters. So it's
going to be a challenge for us."

Wright - whose walk-off two-run single in the bottom of the ninth
against Puerto Rico that sent the United States to the semifinals still
resonates - said he and other National Leaguers will depend on U.S.
players from the other league for advice on Matsuzaka.

"I think we'll be leaning on the AL East guys a lot," Wright said of
the team's approach. "I've never had the opportunity of facing him.
Having some AL East guys is going to help; go over scouting reports and

Whatever happens, the beauty of Wright's game-winner on Tuesday night will stay with the Mets' third baseman a long while.

"I don't think I've ever had so many phone calls and messages after a
game," Wright said. It was his affirmation that some people in this
country do care about this competition.

"That's something, no matter what team you play for or who your
favorite team is in the big leagues, you're talking about representing
your country and putting this uniform on and going out there and being
able to do that. That would be a memory that lasts a lifetime."

Astros righthander Roy Oswalt has a chance to make memories of his own.
He's the U.S. starter against defending WBC champion Japan.

"They told me they wanted me to go first and Jake [Peavy] second," said
Oswalt, alluding to tomorrow's championship game against South Korea or
Venezuela - if Team USA can get past the semifinals.

Then, echoing the thoughts of his teammates, Oswalt added, "Hopefully, he gets to go second."

If he doesn't, if Japan wins, the Team USA players will return a bit
earlier to their major-league teams for two more weeks of spring

"The reason I'm here this time," said Jeter - who competed in the 2006
WBC, in which the United States didn't make it past the second round -
"is you realized what an honor it was to represent your country and win
a championship."

This time the Americans still have the chance.

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Copyright © 2009, Newsday Inc.


RealClearSports: The $40 Million Man Comes Back

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The pain is gone. The one in his shoulder that
is. And Alex Smith says the figurative one, that of being called a
failure, of being described as a $40 million bust, also has
disappeared. His second act is about to begin.

So much glory. So much disappointment. Alex Smith was the No. 1 pick
in the 2005 draft, a placement he seemingly began to appreciate less
and less as the months passed and the criticism grew.

The San Francisco 49ers threw the dice, if you will, but as we know
the NFL draft is more scientific than that. Then again, their new head
coach at the time, Mike Nolan, now deposed and departed, gave a few
weird reasons for grabbing Smith. Especially when in the Bay Area the
popular choice would have been another quarterback, Aaron Rodgers of

We're a strange breed, the sporting community. Management makes the
selections, but if and when those selections do not meet expectations,
outlandish or legitimate, we take out our anger on the athlete.

Nobody booed Mike Nolan, whose future was tied to Smith. A great many booed Alex. Before they pitied him.

The Niners, through perception or luck, were a team of quarterbacks,
great quarterbacks, from Frankie Albert in the 1950s through John
Brodie, to the Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, and then
after that, Jeff Garcia.

This wasn't three yards and a cloud of mud territory; it was a place
for the wide-open game, a style as irrepressible as the region in which
it was utilized, the place of cable cars, protest marches and residents
who sometimes seemed as interested in the tailgate party as the final

Alex Smith, then only 20, was anointed the hero in waiting. Poor
lad. It's a theory that quarterbacks from unorthodox college offenses, the
spread, the run-and-shoot, don't adapt well to the NFL, where the
defenders are bigger, faster and smarter. And we are presented names
such as David Klingler or Andre Ware as examples.

At Utah, Smith played in the spread of Urban Meyer. OK. But Nolan
seemed less concerned with the how and what than with Smith's agility
and reaction time. Nolan ran Smith through some strange tests, not on
how far he could hurl a football but on how quickly he could jump a

That said, Northern California, having lost most of its sports
icons, Montana, Young, Jerry Rice, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and
shortly to lose Barry Bonds, was desperate for a new star. Alex was
shoved into the starting lineup, probably before he was ready.

He was injured while trying to run, not pass. The Niners changed
offensive coordinators, bringing in Norv Turner, and in 2006 Smith
showed progress.

But the Niners in 2007 changed offensive coordinators again. Smith
was injured again, more severely. Nolan publicly questioned Smith's
toughness. The Niners in 2008 changed offensive coordinators again, to
Mike Martz. Smith was injured again, the same shoulder, and was placed
on the injured reserve list, with a dispassionate Nolan adding, “No
specifics. All I need to know is if he'll be back on this football

After a restructuring of that enormous contract, Smith is. Nolan,
however, is not. He was fired two months into the '08 season, replaced
by Mike Singletary. Shaun Hill became Singletary's quarterback, but
maybe Alex Smith could return to where he once was, without the baggage.

“That draft pick, all of that is not what I think about," said
Smith. The 49ers on Friday began a weekend mini-camp, a re-introduction
of Alex Smith, a newlywed with a new vision.

“My focus after the last two years is getting healthy and being out
on the field," Smith emphasized. "Kind of being with my teammates. It
was so difficult last year and the year before to sit on the sidelines
and watch or be in the training room. You're part of the team, but
you're not. You don't travel, aren't really there, have no
accountability to teammates. I want to get that back. It's something I
really missed. My goal is to be the player I can be."

What kind of player is that? A quarterback who has particularly
small hands and therefore fumbled an inordinate amount when he did play?

A quarterback whose legs are no less significant than his arm and could keep defenses off balance?

Smith wants to be a quarterback who, despite working under a fifth
offensive coordinator in five years, Jimmy Raye, has the adaptability
and perception to do what is required, most of all win games for a
franchise that had lost its way along with a great many games.

“What I learned through all this," Smith said, reflecting on his
mess of a career, “is to stop worrying about the stuff you can't
control. Early on, when you're a young player, it's easy to be
distracted. I want to focus on things on which I can really make a

He has the chance. Four years after he had it a first time.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports
history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his
long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has
earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has
recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of
America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009

Baron comes back, and so do the questions

OAKLAND – He was back, if as a bittersweet
reminder, and so were our questions. So were the "What ifs?" So was the
unavoidable reality that the team that lost Baron Davis hasn't done a
thing without him, and the team that lured him away for an oil sheik's
fortune has done even less.

Baron was out there in the red uniform of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Baron on the floor at Oracle Arena, where he had been a star for the


Who lost him last summer, because of a $65 million contract.


Or maybe because of their own negligence.


Or maybe because they believed they didn't need a 10-year veteran who seemed to be hurt as much as he was healthy.


Baron has taken some shots lately in L.A. The figurative kind. There
were those injuries – with Baron, always there are those injuries – and
an apparent lackadaisical attitude.


For $65 million, in his hometown, in the place where he went to school, UCLA, Baron was supposed to be a savior.


But can anybody ever save the Clippers, the NBA franchise that couldn't and never will?


Baron, having missed 15 games, has not been able.


Against his old team Tuesday night, Davis had 29 points and seven
assists, but that couldn't stop the Warriors from a 127-120 win.


One Los Angeles Times columnist, T.J. Simers, called Baron a
dog. Another, Kurt Streeter, a bit kinder, induced Davis to concede,
"This has been the worst year of my NBA career and the least fun I've
ever had."


The basketball cognoscenti might have predicted as much. The Clippers
are not only the second team in a one-team town, virtually undetectable
beyond the Lakers, they are historically inept, a symbol of sporting
incompetence, a punch line of Jay Leno jokes.


It's awful for Baron and the Clips (they now have a 16-51 record). It's
not so great for the Warriors either. They've had their own failings,
their own ailments. Management foresaw Monta Ellis as the quite
adequate replacement for Davis, but he missed weeks after that
cockamamie moped accident.


What if Baron had stayed? The idea is tossed at Davis, who steps
lightly on a line between diplomacy and disrespect. "I don't know," he
begins. "I'm a real optimistic person. I figured we came off a 48-win
season (in 2008), winning more games each year we were playing
together, so who knows what would have happened.


"But I definitely know we would have been in playoff contention and a good team to be reckoned with."


Coaches and teammates are different from fans. They judge on individual
merit. The paying customers consider the uniform, "the laundry," as
someone once said.


An athlete leaves as a free agent, if free ever should be a reference
when $65 million is concerned, and the people who buy the tickets
consider him a traitor to the cause.


Warriors coach Don Nelson said he would be "disappointed" if Baron were
booed in pregame introductions. After all, Nelson contended Baron was
"one of my favorite players" and along with Steve Nash, who Nellie had
at Dallas, the best of the point guards he'd been permitted to coach.


Davis was less demanding. "There probably will be a mixed reaction,"
Baron said. "I'll take whatever I can get. I'll be appreciative of the
cheers I do get. It just shows class, the level of mutual respect I
have for the fans and the fans for my time here."


Indeed the reaction was mixed but more positive than negative, some
fans, recalling that "We Believe" playoff fantasy of two seasons past,
when Baron indeed was royalty, even offering a standing ovation.


In L.A. there is but one basketball hero, Kobe Bryant. Baron was
brought in not so much to counter Kobe the Unconquerable, as create a
presence and – we turn our heads and chuckle in private –  make
the Clips a contender.


Baron has been noticed, if not as hoped. But he says what others,
particularly journalists, think of him is not taken personally. Just as
was the occasional jeer Tuesday when he handled the ball.


"I let things run off my shoulders," was his response. "I have big
shoulders. I'm here to do one thing, that's to win, to get this team
where it needs to be. That's my mission. So if I'm criticized or
ridiculed, I accept it and use it as motivation to continue to get


If that bears a resemblance to one of those Hollywood script speeches,
well, Baron is peripherally involved in the movie business, one of the
reasons we're advised he deserted the Warriors after three and a half


Baron would speak no ill. Monta Ellis, Davis thinks, "is a great
player," and now powerless general manager Chris Mullin "a legend, a
Hall of Famer, someone who's always going to be in my corner and I'm
going to be in his."


Baron's in another sort of corner these days, but the memories are
sustaining. "I have admiration for these fans, the people in the Bay
Area. That playoff run, the fact it brought the whole community
together I'll always have. I'll always be able to cherish."


It was great, but it's gone. And unlike Baron, it may not return for a long while.